Friday, January 16, 2009

Mediated Empty Chair Work

Entry for 16 January 2009:

One thing that we encounter in Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused Therapy is that some clients have real problems trying to do any kind of chair work. There are various reasons for this, including fear of the strong emotions that can be evoked by this sort of work, but the most common issue is that the client just feels silly about doing it. This can be problematic when the client is having trouble accessing their emotions and at the same time presents a strong marker for some kind of chair work, in other words at the precise moment when chair work could really be useful.

A strong working alliance, a clear marker, and a confident but empathic manner all go a long way toward encouraging reluctant clients to engage in chair work. Nevertheless, over the years I’ve become convinced that, until they’re tried it and found it useful, almost nobody likes the idea of chair work. (Except theatre people; but that’s another story…) Furthermore, some clients simply won't go for it. It just sounds too strange.

What to do in these circumstances? Well, with empty chair work in particular, there are various alternatives: First, the client can speak to the air as if they were talking to the significant other; in other words, the task can be done without the physical symbol of the chair. Second, the client can speak to the therapist as if they were the significant other. Third, Sandra Paivio uses a version of empty chairwork in which the client imagines the other to be present in the empty chair, but instead of speaking directly to the other, they speak to the therapist about the significant other. (Sandra reports that this way of working is generally effective, but somewhat less effective than direct empty chair work.)

But another thing that can be tried (that makes four) is for the therapist to engage in a conversation with the imagined other on behalf of the client. This can most obviously be done with therapist taking the role of the client in conversing with the other. In addition, however, it is also possible for the therapist to mediate between client and imagined other, that is, to act as a kind of interpreter, for example: “X says for me to tell you that she still misses you and wishes you could be with her now.”

This might sound rather distant and indirect, but it turns out that it can be quite an evocative experience for the therapist, requiring the deepest empathy with the client and easily touching the therapist’s own issues with important others. It seems to be an approach that is worth exploring further, especially for clients who find empty chair work embarrassing and threatening!

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